So, by now you’ve probably heard that Oprah has resurrected and re-mastered her book club to showcase Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild. (Reese Witherspoon has also optioned Wild and will play Cheryl in the film and the kick-ass Lisa Cholodenko is attached to write the screenplay and direct. Jesus. Literary jack-fucking-pot.) With all the doom and gloom about the demise of the literary memoir and the blah blah about 50 Shades of Grey and the death of quality publishing and what have you, it’s an explosion of fiery sunshine to see a book and a writer of this caliber hit the mainstream. And my favorite part—one of my favorite parts—about her overnight and runaway success is that she’s been laboring at it for a couple of decades. Because that’s what writers do.
And if you haven’t been living in a literary media blackout then you also know that Cheryl Strayed was recently revealed as the amazing Rumpus advice columnist, Dear Sugar. But my reading relationship with Cheryl goes way back.
The first piece of Cheryl’s I ever read was an essay called "The Love of My Life" in The Sun magazine. If you haven’t read it, it’s here. Go on, I’ll wait.
Fucking amazing, right? If you’re not shaken to your bones by that piece, you might want to call your doctor because I think you’re probably dead inside.
It was assigned reading in the first memoir class I took at UCLA with the brilliant-in-her-own-right memoirista Sam Dunn. I read that fucking thing at least five times before I could get through it without sobbing. Then I devoured Cheryl’s other work—some amazing essays that you can find with your Google finger and a novel called Torch. Beautiful, honest, intricately wrought stories about love and relationships and sex and grief and children and families and mothers and faraway fathers and life.
I looked around for more from her and came up empty and Torch gathered dust on my bookshelf. Last year (or maybe it was a couple of years ago now) I friended her on Twitter and learned she was working on a memoir. At about the same time, I started reading The Rumpus and, of course, the Dear Sugar column, which was then written anonymously by the fantastic writer Steve Almond.
In the months that followed, there was a bit of a furor in the literary circles I move in. (Actually, in the literary circles I limp about in.) WHO was Dear Sugar? Theories ran rampant, from Rumpus founder Stephen Elliott to some of the other frequent Rumpus contributors and other wild guesses. Was she JCO? Was she Mark Doty? My favorite moment ever was when Sam emailed me and said “OMG, is it you? Are YOU Dear Sugar?” Just the notion that my first mentor thought for one second that I could turn out gorgeous, raw, honest prose on that level made me high for a week.
But her secret was safe with me. “I dunno,” I said, when people Facebooked me and emailed me and posited their theories.
I was kind of surprised that people—at least the people who’d read her prize-winning essays—didn’t put it together. That voice, that heart, that brilliant way with words was so obvious to me.
Cheryl and I had a few exchanges about it.
“Dude,” I said (although she hates the Valley girl vernacular I often adopt to distance myself), “you’re blowing it. Stop being so self-referential.” I’m actually paraphrasing. “Stop cross referencing yourself,” I said, or something like that. My Twitter archive doesn’t go back that far.
I felt like it was our delicious secret. One that several people shared, but still.
Time passed. She came out, finally, in a fabulous event where Steve Almond introduced her. I wasn’t there, but when I watched it on YouTube, I cried. LOOK:
I defy you to watch that and not fall madly in love with Steve Almond. And now, she’s about to rocket into the stratosphere. And, sure, there’s a little bit of envy. A little jealousy that she’s hit the literary Mega Millions. That’s just human though, right?
There’s a little bit of sadness that I’m losing her as a pocket writer. Do you know what I mean? The idea that I could turn you on to her and you’d be eternally grateful that I’d exposed you to her brilliance. Oprah’s taken that role now.